SoL Story: Footballing Cathedral

In 1995, Sir Bob Murray put forward a plan to build a stadium on the former site of Wearmouth Colliery, which had closed in December 1993.

Located on the north bank of the River Wear, the site was only a few hundred yards from Sunderland’s then home, Roker Park, but even then, the red and white army remained sceptical.

Roker Park was home, and it had been almost a century, so the idea of moving somewhere else was considered blasphemy by many.

But following the release of the Taylor report in 1990, and the problems involved with turning Roker Park into an all-seater stadium, the time had come to say goodbye.

“I was asking the fans to take a leap of faith,” explained Murray.

“Roker Park was a ground for its era, but it had suffered from lack of investment for many years and was run down, with only 7,000 seats out of a 22,600 capacity.

“It could not be extended to the capacity we needed for an all-seater stadium – and to provide the much-needed catalyst and infrastructure for future success.

“I always knew we had to move and build something new – even if that wasn’t popular in the beginning.

“That didn’t bother me because I knew I was doing the right thing for the supporters, it was just that we hadn’t got to the stage where they believed.”

Seeing is often believing, and by November 1995, Sir Bob announced that the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation had approved plans to build a 34,000-seater stadium on the site.

The intended capacity rose to 40,000 in 1996, and then to 42,000 at the time of completion, and as construction began, anticipation began to grow.

“Of course, when the steelwork went up and people could see the scale of what we were building, I think it took people’s breath away and that calmed the situation down a bit.

“They loved Roker Park, and me moving the club out of there was the biggest crime ever committed.

“They just didn’t trust me enough at that time, but now the city has a footballing cathedral.

“I think the fact that the stadium incorporated the heritage of the area, and of Roker Park, helped the fans accept the move.”

And by the time the Stadium of Light opened in 1997 for a showpiece friendly against Dutch giants Ajax, even Sir Bob was unable to secure a ticket!

“Not having a ticket and that someone was in my seat – that’s my memory from the opening game.

“But it was a beautiful sight when the stadium was full of people for the first time – it came alive and lit up – and it felt like a marriage between fans and club.

“Roker Park was the club’s home for 99 years, and the Stadium of Light will be there for at least that long.”

The Stadium of Light has since played host to cup runs, great escapes, derby-day wins, and so much more, with England using the venue on multiple occasions.

Some of the biggest acts in music have also made the Stadium of Light their temporary home, with One Direction, Beyonce and Oasis playing to capacity crowds.

And Sir Bob is right, it will be the club’s home, and so much more, for many years to come. 

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